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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

How the Russian Military Mounted a Comeback in Ukraine

Conventional Western thought tends to demonize Russia and promotes storylines that expose the Russian military’s errors, mistakes, and combat losses in Ukraine.

Russian TOS-1 Rocket Artillery. Image Credit: YouTube Screenshot.

Conventional Western thought tends to demonize Russia and promotes storylines that expose the Russian military’s errors, mistakes, and combat losses in Ukraine.

Very often these stories are accurate in their particulars. But when the broader context is removed, it is a problem. 

This brief series seeks to correctly assess Russia’s military performance since February 2022 and project its potential into the future. It seeks to correct errors in the mainstream narrative by providing a comprehensive basic assessment. It will take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of Russia’s performance. 

In this installment, we will look at the successful aspects of Putin’s army to date.

(Editor’s Note: You can find all parts of this series here.)

The analysis that follows will detail Russia’s opening moves, which include “the bad” we have seen from the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. 

This analysis picks up in the aftermath of Russia’s first major error, the splitting of its forces into four relatively small axes that allowed Ukraine to slow and then stop all four drives. By the middle of March 2022 it was clear that Russia had penetrated as far into Ukraine as it was going to get — far short of its initial objectives. 

Successful Withdrawal from Kyiv

Putin’s army at that time was positioned on three sides of Kyiv and to the north of Sumy and Kharkiv, spread over a distance of nearly 500 kilometers. Ukrainian forces had recovered from their initial shock and deployed large formations that attacked Russian armor with anti-tank guided missiles from the west, to great effect. At this moment, Moscow faced a stark choice. It could either significantly reinforce around the three major urban centers in the north, or withdraw its forces from there. Putin chose the latter, and this was Russia’s first good move.

On the surface, this looked like an unqualified failure. Having been blunted by what Russia considered an inferior force, upward of 40,000 Russian troops abandoned the whole of the northern front. From a strategic point of view, however, the move had value for the Kremlin. 

The prideful thing to do — and many armies fall victim to decisions based on pride — was to stay and reinforce their positions, sticking to the original plan to take one or more of the cities. That would almost certainly have failed. Russia did not have anywhere near the number of troops necessary to control any city of more than 1 million people. Instead, Putin took the public relations hit and ordered his entire northern force to withdraw and join the axes that had attacked in the Donbas.

This is the one good move Russia made in the first nine months of war. Adding that much manpower to Moscow’s primary objective of “liberating” the Russian-speaking population in the Donbas made sense. Though Russia still did not make major progress, even with the additional troops, they were able, over the summer and early fall, to capture a number of fairly significant towns, including Mariupol, Poposna, Severodonetsk, and Lysychansk. 

The next positive move by Moscow was again made in the face of a tactical defeat.

Withdrawal from Kherson and Plugging the Gap in Kharkiv

As I will describe in greater detail in a subsequent installment, Ukraine launched an offensive in the late summer of 2022 from two directions, first in Kherson Oblast and second in Kharkiv Oblast. The Russians were aware of the planned offensive in Kherson and were prepared for it. Initially, Moscow’s troops blunted the Ukrainian offensive and inflicted significant casualties while giving very little ground. But then Ukrainian leaders unleashed a major attack on the Russian northern flank for which the Russians were totally unprepared.

Ukraine drove Russians out of the Kharkiv region so far back, so fast, that the Russians surrendered a staggering 6,000 square kilometers of territory, forcing them to rush massive reinforcements from elsewhere in Ukraine to stop the bleeding. That put their position in Kherson city at great risk. 

Russia could have chosen to stand and fight there, as they had spent many months fortifying the city, but the Russian high command chose to surrender Kherson without a fight, withdrawing its entire force of another 40,000 troops to the south side of the Dnipro River. In the process, they blew the four bridges spanning the Dnipro in that area, effectively sealing off the entire southern front from any continued Ukrainian offensive. 

The move saved the entire Russian defensive force in that battle, sealed off their southern flank, and allowed them to redeploy their forces to other vulnerable fronts. Russia avoided a protracted urban fight they might not have been able to win and strengthened their formations across the rest of the front. As a result, since the time Russia withdrew from Kherson city, Ukraine has not made any appreciable gains anywhere in theater.

Mobilizing 300,000 Troops and Industry, and Preparing Massive Defensive Belts

The twin embarrassments of losing so much territory near Kharkiv and withdrawing from Kherson city were the last straw for the Kremlin. Putin belatedly acknowledged that the troop levels with which Russia started the war were grossly insufficient, and he ordered a partial mobilization of 300,000 troops. Perhaps more important than the expansion of the army was the mobilization of military industry. Putin directed that factories producing military gear, vehicles, and ammunition go into near full production. Many of them went to multiple shifts, working six or seven days a week.

These moves, however, would take time to manifest — and Russia didn’t have the luxury of time, as the Ukrainian Armed Forces were still putting eastward pressure on Moscow’s lines near Svatove and Kreminna. Further, the Russian Ministry of Defense was not prepared for a sudden flood of new recruits. They did not have enough facilities, trainers, food, and most critically, military clothing. Some of the initial recruits were shoved into whatever clothing they could find, allowed to fire a few rounds on a gun range, and thrown into the lines to prevent further Ukrainian advances. It took until early 2023 before the system was able to adequately receive, house, equip, and train the new troops.

Industry, meanwhile, had its own problems. It is enormously difficult under any circumstances to suddenly ramp up production of anything. (American and Western firms are similarly struggling to rapidly ramp up production of key armaments.) Additional raw materials have to be found and delivered to factories. Facilities to produce arms have to be purchased or built from scratch. Qualified personnel must be found, hired, and trained. Only in the past few months has Russian military industry started to see meaningful increases in production off the assembly lines. 

The longer the war goes on, however, the higher the volume of production. Russia is reportedly already seeing significant increases in production and repair of armored vehicles of all types — new fighter jets, missiles, bombs, artillery shells, and bullets in all calibers. Other production, especially of various types of drones, is already producing increased volumes but is not expected to peak until well into 2024. 

Concurrently, Russia is in the process of trying to expand its active-duty force by a half-million over the next several years. Even as Russia began the process of building up its manpower and equipment, it still had to fight the current battle and prepare for a major Ukrainian offensive.

Analysis of Russian tactical actions from December 2022 onward indicates that the high command chose to spend the majority of their effort and resources on building an elaborate defensive system across the eastern front. The biggest lesson of the Russian failure to stop Ukraine’s Kharkiv offensive last autumn was the near-total absence of defensive fortifications in territory they occupied. To ensure that fiasco did not repeat itself, the Kremlin focused all its efforts on building multiple belts of the world’s most sophisticated and effective defensive fortifications. Such efforts take time.

The biggest risk for Russia would have been an early Ukrainian attack before the defensive fortifications had been completed. In an attempt to forestall such an event, Russian commanders began a series of low-level operations all along the 1,000 km line of contact. They used just enough small unit raids and artillery attacks to keep Ukraine occupied on its side of the line, forestalling any focused, large-scale offensive against incomplete Russian defenses. The most prominent actions, however, involved a major push in the center of the zone by the Wagner Group private military corporation on the twin objectives of Soledar and Bakhmut.

The majority of Russian resources — and critically, a major media campaign — went to Wagner and its boisterous leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin. The town of Bakhmut was a viable tactical objective, but by itself it was not especially important. Russia made it important by putting so much effort into taking it, with Prigozhin personally taunting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on more than one occasion. Ukraine accepted the challenge, and rather than withdraw from the town to more defensible positions in December 2022 or January 2023, Kyiv chose to fight for literally every building.

There were already-prepared defensive positions in multiple belts to the west that Ukraine could have withdrawn to at any time, and most of them would have given the defenders significant advantages over the Russians. Staying in Bakhmut reduced the defenders’ advantages and made it easier for Russia to get men and materials up to the Ukrainian lines, often approaching unseen from point-blank range. 

The prudent (if emotionally distasteful) military expedient required the Ukrainian side to conduct a withdrawal to the next lines so that Russian troops would have to advance in open ground or uphill, exposing themselves to withering fire before ever reaching Ukrainian lines. Instead, Kyiv chose to hold on, sending brigade after brigade of reinforcements over many months, to stop Wagner’s assault. As it turned out, Russia’s gambit worked. It took Wagner until late May to finally complete the capture of Bakhmut, enabling the bulk of the Russian army to build a system of fortifications, without interference, for more than half a year.

The reason Ukraine’s summer offensive has been so unsuccessful to date is that Russia had time to construct each barrier and strong point of their defense to ideal standards. Not only did Russia’s strategy to keep Ukraine focused on Bakhmut buy them time to prepare formidable defensive lines, it also sapped the Ukrainian offensive of striking power, owing to the diversion of multiple brigades to hold each building within Bakhmut.

Ramifications for Ukraine War

Russia started the war in February 2022 with a poorly designed, poorly executed plan that nearly cost them the war. They made additional blunders (as the next installment of this analysis will detail) over the next nine months. But eventually Moscow began to learn from its many mistakes. Russia has made considerable improvements to its position.

Russian actions bought time from November 2022 through June 2023 to stop one Ukrainian offensive and delay a second until Russia could expand its army, mobilize its wartime industry, and construct an elaborate defensive system. What remains unknown, however, is what Russia will seek to do next, and to what extent it has built an offensive capacity.

Soviet defensive doctrine, which Russia has been following very closely since late last year, is expressly designed to blunt an enemy offensive, weaken it to some predetermined degree, and then launch a counteroffensive at the earliest possible moment. At this point it is impossible to know if Russia was building an offensive potential on Russian soil at the same time it was building its defenses, and if they have such a force, how effective it would be. Being expert at defense doesn’t automatically translate to being effective on offense.

Yet in any rendering, Ukraine is about to enter a period of heightened risk. As a result of the high casualties Ukraine suffered in the defense of Bakhmut — losses compounded since June in its offensive — the UAF has limited and diminishing striking power. If Ukraine continues their offensive, the casualties they suffer might at some point reduce UAF capacity to a level that makes fighting impossible, requiring a conversion to the defensive. If Russia did follow Soviet doctrine and has built a credible offensive force, it is uncertain whether Ukraine would have sufficient strength to prevent a Russian breakthrough.

Even if Russia built such a force, there is no way to know how effective it might be. Russian tactical performance during their opening offensive in February 2022 was, in many categories, abysmal. We lack the evidence to know whether the Russian army learned critical lessons from those failures, has sufficiently trained units in proper tactics, and has the necessary resources to succeed. The level of strategic risk Ukraine faces, therefore, is unknown. 

For all its many missteps in this war, Russia has done a number of things right. It is very important to understand that objectively recognizing that Putin’s forces have executed some military actions successfully does not, in any way, convey a morality or rightness to their actions. But ignoring the effective actions of a rival does us no favors. In order to form a plan to thwart a foe, it is necessary to understand the comprehensive whole — the good, the bad, and the ugly.

In the next iteration of this analysis, we will examine the much more emotionally satisfying topic: the ugly of Russia’s performance.

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” 

Written By

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.